My friend the mean girl.

Why do we hold on to the mean girls in our lives?

ELLE (Canada) - - News - By Claire Kil­roy

zoe started our 15-year re­la­tion­ship as my school bully, and what a bully she proved to be. The prob­lem was, she was so funny. She had a great sense of au­di­ence too, know­ing where best to po­si­tion her­self to se­cure the loud­est laugh. She con­structed a mono-desk at the back of the class­room for her gang, cast­ing as­per­sions and dis­pens­ing scorn. My re­ac­tion was that I was no longer able to read aloud in class. I was mid-para­graph in Ger­man class one af­ter­noon when my breath cut off and my voice shut down. I gasped at the class and then spent the next 15 years con­coct­ing ex­cuses to avoid speak­ing in pub­lic.

Af­ter months of be­ing pil­lo­ried for the amuse­ment of her gang, I came in one day to find the mono-desk a desk shorter. It turned out that Zoe had been ex­pelled from her gang for kiss­ing a fel­low mem­ber’s boyfriend.

Pur­ga­tory didn’t suit Zoe. There were tears, ab­sences, par­ent-teacher con­fer­ences (why did the school pro­tect the bul­lies and not the bul­lied?)—all to no avail. Zoe was out in the cold. Which meant her crosshairs were no longer trained on me. I was off the hook—free.

Months later, I ran into Zoe. I had come out of the movie the­atre and there she was. I was 15; she was 16. “Call me,” she said, and I nod­ded a “Yeah, what­ever.” “Se­ri­ously,” she in­sisted. “Call me.” She looked so for­lorn and so lonely. I called. And so be­gan our friend­ship, though friend­ship is hardly the word.

She was trou­ble. That’s what I liked best about her. She was reck­less and de­struc­tive, and when she didn’t un­leash those traits on me, life to­gether was a laugh. Dare I say it? I was proud of my new friend. I needed val­i­da­tion af­ter the end­less sneer­ing, and who bet­ter to pro­vide this than the one who’d sneered in the first place? Sad, I know, but there it is.

There was a prob­lem from the get-go with Zoe and men—or, rather, with other girls’ boyfriends. “I get a real

kick if I can get the boyfriend to eye me back,” she told me. “Know what I mean?” No, ac­tu­ally, I didn’t. She had an af­fair with a mar­ried man soon af­ter she got her first job in an ad­ver­tis­ing firm. He was the artis­tic di­rec­tor, and she’d ring me to re­gur­gi­tate the com­pli­ments he’d given her. But then she changed.

She slowed down and bal­looned out. A boy she’d met in New York (she was high and wear­ing a cock­tail dress at the time) vis­ited to cheer her up. The Zoe he got was not the one who had en­chanted him back in SoHo, but he per­sisted and made her his wife. Zoe, it seemed, was fi­nally happy.

I got an apol­ogy of sorts dur­ing that pe­riod—our mid-20s. It ran some­thing like this: The boy: “Zoe has some­thing to say, Claire.” Zoe stares at the ta­ble. The boy: “Don’t you, Zoe?” Si­lence. “Zoooeeee,” the boy whee­dles, “re­mem­ber what we dis­cussed?” Zoe shrugs. The boy smiles apolo­get­i­cally. “What Zoe is try­ing to say is that she’s re­ally sorry about what hap­pened at school. Aren’t you, Zoe?” Zoe nods, eyes still low­ered. The boy: “Yeah, Zoe wants you to know she re­grets bul­ly­ing you.” Zoe con­tin­ues to stare at the ta­ble. Me, to break the si­lence: “Thanks, Zoe.” Zoe, shyly: “You’re wel­come.” Though the apol­ogy was less than it could have been, it proved that Zoe had con­fessed to her hus­band that she had bul­lied me and so must have felt bad about it. That counted for some­thing. “You know as well as I know how hard it is to love Zoe some­times,” the boy con­fided to me later that night. Be­fore she turned 30, he left her for a dancer. It was just me and Zoe again, or what was left of her.

I got my pub­lish­ing deal. Zoe asked to read my novel in man­u­script form. I agreed but changed my mind. First nov­els are del­i­cate fledglings. I had to pro­tect mine from her with­er­ing gaze, for Zoe was back on form again by then. She sum­moned me to a meet­ing.

“I have to ask you a ques­tion,” she be­gan. “It’s a bit awk­ward,” she con­tin­ued, “but I’d ap­pre­ci­ate your hon­esty.” I won­dered what I could have done. “Your novel, Claire,” she be­gan. “Is it about me?” I laughed, spat­ter­ing my drink across the ta­ble. She thought I’d spent three years of my life writ­ing about her. “Sorry to have to dis­ap­point you…” I be­gan. Then came my turn to be be­trayed by her when it came to men. I’d es­caped in my 20s be­cause I had no man to steal, but then I met...let’s call him “John.” I told Zoe how strongly I felt about John. The two of us were sit­ting in a bar, drink­ing cock­tails. It was New Year’s Eve. “I’ve some­thing to tell you,” said Zoe. “John kissed me.”

I put a hand on the bar to steady my­self. Then I thanked her. I re­as­sured her that she had done the right thing to tell me and that she was a true friend. She ac­cepted my grat­i­tude. She had saved me from a ter­ri­ble man, af­ter all.

I wanted de­tails. When had the kiss hap­pened? It was the night the four of us had been out to­gether, she said. Me with John, her with Harry. Did it hap­pen in the club? “No.” Out­side the club? “No.” Where, then? “John’s flat.” But you weren’t alone with John in his flat. She shrugged. Where was I when this oc­curred? I per­sisted. “I don’t know,” she said, “the toi­let?” And where was Harry? Again, she wasn’t sure. Not good enough. I left to phone John. He laughed. “You were there,” he told me. “You saw it all.” I thought back. Zoe, drunk, had grabbed John’s head and pulled his mouth onto hers. When she re­leased him, John had looked at me and made a “Holy shit!” face. I had made a “Holy shit!” face back. Hardly a be­trayal on his part. But hers? That was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

I went back to the bar with this in­for­ma­tion. I told Zoe what I’d seen—that John had not kissed her but that she had kissed John—that I’d been there when it hap­pened. “How was I sup­posed to know you were there?” she’d coun­tered an­grily, as if I were the one at fault.

I gath­ered my stuff and left. Zoe didn’t fol­low. I made my way up the street as peo­ple around me rang in the New Year. The far­ther I walked, the more I could feel Zoe fall­ing away be­hind me. That part of my life was over.

She tried to con­tact me over the next few months. I re­fused to take her calls. I wor­ried that I might run into her on the street, that there would be a showdown, a con­fronta­tion. But noth­ing. There were sight­ings—some­one saw her here, an­other saw her there. But I saw her nowhere. Our paths never crossed.

Zoe showed up again six and a half years later. I was sign­ing books, when I looked up to find her next in the line. “Je­sus,” I said. She handed over a bunch of flow­ers. They were beau­ti­ful. Her nar­row frame was trem­bling from head to foot. I stood up and em­braced her across the ta­ble. “It’s great to see you,” she kept say­ing. “It’s re­ally great.” I sat down, wrote my email ad­dress in her book, gave it to her and then got back to sign­ing books.

She emailed to say she was happy to see I hadn’t lost my taste in boots and that she’d love to meet up. There was a rush of fond­ness for the old days, be­cause when Zoe was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she would al­ways strive to hurt me. I shud­dered and clicked “delete.” n

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